For at least a year now, much has been made of the Nationals’ need for a true leadoff hitter. Jayson Werthserved very well in that spot for the greater part of the 2012 season, posting a hearty .387 OBP, but he is no base-stealing threat, nor does he play a premium defensive position. His bat, with his .300 average and .440 slugging percentage, would be much more valuable in the heart of the lineup, as he could drive in the faster batters already on base and would not need to steal bases given that there would be runners ahead of him. The question remains, however: if Werth won’t hit leadoff, who should?
The Nationals’ lineup is, as it stands, already quite full. The only spots that could potentially change are the outfield and first base. If Adam LaRoche re-signs, then the lineup is essentially locked, with him at first and an outfield of Morse/Harper/Werth, unless the team decides to trade Morse. If LaRoche does not re-sign, however, a world of possibilities is opened. The team could sign another first baseman-type player, and has reportedly expressed interest in Nick Swisher. However, this does not address the need for a leadoff hitter. The only way in which this need could be addressed is if the team either trades Morse or does not re-sign LaRoche, and then signs Michael Bourn.
Last season with the Braves, Bourn hit .274/.348/.391. At first glance, these numbers are not particularly impressive. Werth’s OBP and slugging were both significantly higher. However, Bourn also stole 42 bases, good for second in the NL. He was also a premier defensive player, committing only two errors all season despite playing the third-most innings among NL outfielders. He led baseball in UZR/150 at 22.5; meaning that he saved 22.5 runs more than the average MLB outfielder. As an overall contributor, Bourn finished 13th in baseball with 6.4 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) according to Fangraphs, a full run more than the top National, Ian Desmond, who had 5.4 WAR. Bourn would be a huge upgrade over Harper defensively in center, and a boon to the top of the lineup as well.
While Bourn is a force atop the lineup, he has his drawbacks as well. One of the biggest knocks against him is that he strikes out a lot, 155 times in 2012, or in more than 20% of his plate appearances. The main reason that a high strikeout rate is bad is that while some outs in play can score runners, such as sacrifice flies, strikeouts cannot. As the leadoff hitter, however, Bourn will not often have to hit with runners on base, which means that strikeouts are not as much of a problem as they would be for any other player. Critics will also note that 2013 will be Bourn’s age 30 season, and speed is the first skill to depart as a player ages. While Bourn may be 30, he is a relatively young 30. His rookie season was his age 24 season, which means that he has less wear-and-tear on him than a similar player whose major league debut came at age 21 or 22.
The final criticism of Bourn is that he will command a large salary, which is undoubtedly true. Former Nationals GM and ESPN columnist Jim Bowden predicted that Bourn would sign a 5 year, $75M deal, paying him $15M a year. The issue here is not that the Nationals cannot afford this deal, which they can. The Lerners are baseball’s richest owners, and can foot any bill. The concern is that Bourn may not be worth the money. The standard across baseball is to pay approximately $5M per Win Above Replacement. By that logic, Bourn’s 2012 season was worth over $30M. If he can produce at a similar level going forward, then the deal would be a bargain. The break-even point for this deal would be 3 WAR, a benchmark that Bourn has met for each of the last four seasons. If Bourn’s production does not suddenly drop precipitously, a deal like that would be within reason. Signing Bourn to a long-term deal in center would also lock down the entire Nats outfield for the foreseeable future, turning promising prospects such as Brian Goodwin into valuable trade chips with which the Nationals can improve other positions.
Across the board, Bourn is a perfect fit for the Nats. He fits their needs, his weaknesses are few and far between, and best of all: signing him significantly weakens his former team and the Nats’ fierce division rival, the Atlanta Braves. Adding Bourn would be a huge step forward for the Nats, and he could be a significant piece of a championship team in 2013.